If you were to meet me for the first time, you'd have no idea.
I talk on the radio for a living. I'm always smiling, always laughing. I can work a crowd with charisma and ease. I'm sociable and fun.
But the truth is, I'm an introvert with social anxiety. And in order for you to remain unaware of that fact, I must work incredibly hard day in and day out to make you believe otherwise.
I remember the day my shrink diagnosed me with social anxiety. I literally laughed in his face. At the time I was playing host for an arena football team. My crazy antics spotlighted in front of a crowd of 8,000 fans weekend after weekend. During the day I spoke to the masses through the airwaves on a country radio station.
"I might have a lot of things wrong with me Doc, but social anxiety is not one of them."
Only I didn't understand what it was back then. You see, when I was standing in the middle of that arena on the microphone it was still just me. I wasn't talking to anyone in particular. Same goes for radio. While I'm speaking to a region of listeners all I see is that microphone. There's no conversation. No back and forth. I'm great at talking, as long as I don't have to worry about someone responding.
I'm insecure as any human. And those things gave me a boost of confidence that allowed me to look like I had my $#!t together to the outside world. When inside, I'm just an overwhelmed, over-analyzing, obsessive mess.
My biggest fear: The phone.
I'm not sure when this phobia truly started rearing it's ugly head, but it's one that has only gotten worse with time. Maybe it's because when the phone rings it's typically because of something serious.
There's an emergency at work.
He's breaking up with you.
Whatever the reason, the anxiety I get when the phone rings is up at the top.
So what does this anxiety feel like? It's like someone is putting a plastic bag over my head and I am suffocating. I can't breathe and this causes fear and the fear elevates my heart to where it feels like it's going to beat out of my chest.
I once dated a guy that would incessantly call me if I upset him. He would literally bully me by calling over and over. Metaphorically tightening that bag over my head with each call.
Talking on the phone means I'm forced to conversate. Which likely means I'm going to talk over you because I can't see your lips move and can't see you pause. I also ramble on when I'm nervous and one-on-one conversations shake me to my core. I hate that I can't see your face and your reactions to the things I'm saying. I hate that I'm hard of hearing and I've asked you, "What?" twelve times. I'm already stressing over the fact that you are going to tell me something of importance that I will ultimately forget about tomorrow.
This is why I text. I can respond to you when I'm ready. After I've populated my thoughts and written (sometimes a dozen times) the words as I want them to be read. I can refer back to your texts when I'm feeling forgetful to make sure what you said wasn't just a figment of my overactive imagination.
You've invited me to a party and now I know I won't be late because I forgot the time you told me on the phone. I have a text to refer back to...
Not that I really want to go anyway.
Which leads me to biggest fear #2: Social Gatherings.
I was single for a very long time. Which meant if you invited me somewhere, I was coming alone. That horrifies me. Yes, I value my alone time. I LOVE being alone. As in no other humans. But I can't bear the thought of GOING somewhere social alone. Very rarely will you find me getting the nerve to eat alone, go to a coffee shop alone and I still can't seem to shake the fear of going to the movies alone.
I feel like it's an open invitation for people to ask THE question..." Are you okay?"
Yes, Karen. I'm good. But I'd be even better if you would stop talking to me like my goldfish just died.
I will ultimately tell you yes when you invite me somewhere because, well...social anxiety. I don't know how to say no. I could be honest with you and tell you I'd rather be alone watching Netflix with my dog but then you might take that the wrong way. So as my mind moves a million miles a second trying to come up with a valid excuse, all that escapes my lips is...."Sure, I'd love to."
And I regret it immediately.
So now I either flake on you or show up and want to punch myself in the throat.
Social gatherings used to be no big thing. I was great at managing my anxiety with alcohol. Well, I quit drinking, so now I have zero liquid courage and no beer bottle label to pick at and shred to pieces as I avoid making eye contact with you. Instead, I am on an automatic mission to find the family pet.
Yes, you heard me correctly. I know you have a cute furry kitty cat or slobbery puppy around here somewhere. Maybe a horse in the backyard? Oh, come ON....how about a fish tank? Something, ANYTHING I can focus my attention on that will keep me from having to deal with the small-talk conversations that will ultimately ruin the rest of my night.
There's biggest fear #3. SMALL TALK.
Admit it, you don't care what I've been up to or how I've been.
"Good, just working a lot. How about you?"
"Same, great weather we're having though!"
"I know, right! I love sunshine!"
Insert awkward silence and my cue to leave...
"Oh, it looks like there's finally no line to the bathroom! I'll be right back okay?"
Lies. All lies. I'm never coming back. Instead, I'm going to tell the clown who invited me to this horrible place that I forgot to let the dog out and I must go home and tend to her.
Which leads me to the worst part of having social anxiety. The aftermath.
I will now sit at home and obsess over EVERYTHING. Did I say the right thing? Did I offend anyone? Did I smile enough? Was my outfit cute enough? Do they all think I've gained weight and are now talking about me behind my back? Is my friend mad that I left? Will I get another invite (not that I want one)?
Time to put my mind to something else. I know, I'll clean! I look around me at the mess I've been putting off for days. More anxiety. Nope, not going to get that done today. Maybe I'll just take a nap.
I check my phone as I lie down. Social media has me inundated with messages and notifications. I post a picture from the party showing what a great time I had and ignore them all. I'm exhausted. I can't chat with anyone else. I have no energy to respond to all of those messages. Instead, I go to my boyfriend's ex-girlfriend's page and stalk her photos for an hour comparing myself to every single one.
If only I could be that normal.
I start to finally doze off and drop the phone on my face
Great, now I'm going to have to explain that bruise to people.
*Cue anxiety again*
So how do I manage my anxiety? How do I put on my "everything is okay" face day to day and beat that thing to a pulp?
I allow myself reclusion.
I go out in nature. I put my phone on do not disturb. I throw on the headphones. I run. I put on my comfies and get lost in a book or a mindless TV show. I talk to my pets. I write.
And the hardest part...I don't let other's attitudes toward my need to go rogue get to me.
"Why haven't you answered?"
"Why don't you respond?"
Why, why, why...
It's none of your damn business. I'm working on me. End of story. And I will not fall back into old habits of self-medicating to numb these feelings.
What I will do, however, is recognize them and face them head-on.
It's a classic case of "It's not you, it's me."
And only someone who suffers from anxiety will understand that.
So if you are suffering, this is me telling you that you aren't alone. You aren't weird. The world isn't out to get you as we may imagine it is. It's you against yourself.
And if you work at it hard enough, eventually you'll be able to work together.